Sunday, September 30, 2018

Bearing Witness to an Inhuman World

In our mad rushing hither and thither, in all the teeming metropolises and the deep time of our machinations as clever mammals on this earth, has anyone ever given up because he or she deserved better in life? Has even a single child, man or woman been betrayed and brought low, been shafted by powers in high places, been crushed or torn asunder by natural forces, and forced to reckon with the manifest unfairness of it all? Has any victim recognized the injustice or the absurd abuse of power and chosen to denounce the inhumanity by turning her agency against herself and snuffing the flame of her consciousness?

In the tales of the farcical Western religions of monotheism there was such a victim. His name is Job, and the Bible reinforces its totalitarian logic at that character’s expense, by appealing to an unknowable divine plan that supposedly rectifies all wrongdoings, rendering any resistance to God or any loss of faith the only injustice—which God allows to occur out of his boundless generosity. Thus we have perhaps the most famous example of the fallacy in which the tyrant endures by blaming the victim for that victim’s weakness. The hidden meaning of the Book of Job is satirical: not even the tyrannical Lord God is comfortable with the true reason for Job’s torments, which is why instead of revealing that he’d merely made a bet with Satan to test Job’s faith, the Lord changes the subject, buffeting Job with a litany of irrelevant boasts. The tyrant has no justification because he, too, is trapped by an unsavory script, corrupted as he inevitably is by his excessive power. Thus, although Job learns to despise himself and to “repent in dust and ashes,” the reader can see through the Lord’s bluster and wonder at the fact that while Job can’t answer the Lord, neither can the Lord answer Job. True, Job is weak and ignorant by comparison with God, but God is so morally impaired by his supremacy that like the myriad spoiled, mad kings from history, he may not even recall his last whim, the bet with the cynical angel, and so when challenged by Job to defend the apparent injustice of that man’s suffering, the Lord can only further inflate his swollen ego by testifying to his awesome might.

Religion, then, is no help in the matter. Everyone knows that there’s certainly been at least one person who has suffered unfairly, who has been broken by that suffering and forced to give up on life. Of course, instead of just one such sufferer there have been tens of billions throughout the Anthropocene. But even one is enough. If just a single person has lost everything through no fault of hers, such a monstrous system failure taints any winner’s victory and should subvert the victor’s pride. Every pleasure must henceforth be enjoyed under a banner that points to the world’s metaphysical flaws. All of us are called, then, to withdraw in shame, to be embarrassed at the thought of participating in any endeavour with an open, glad heart. We’re obliged instead to bear witness to the casualties of existence, to cease fooling ourselves and to prevent our being dazzled by the tyrant’s distractions. At a minimum we should be humble in all our thoughts and actions, not merely for any psychological benefit of that virtue, but to demonstrate that we understand the philosophical stakes, that we’re on the right side in the struggle.

Unlike our civilized games, there’s no prize awaiting the existential victor, the noble mind that “fights the good fight, finishes the race, and keeps the faith.” When we train ourselves to forget that life is a joke and not a blessing, when we betray our knowledge of the world’s obvious unfairness, by consigning ourselves to the daily grind in the hope of reaping some petty reward, we become grotesque clowns, silly little pawns of amoral systems and programs. By contrast, when we renounce these games or when we at least play them half-heartedly, knowing in the back of our mind that they’re obscene for excusing a world that creates so many runners only to ruin them with no moral end in view, we win nothing but a shadow or a whisper of honour. On the contrary, the Janus-faced runners are more likely to be ruined in turn, to resemble the crushed and the fallen whose burdens they can’t help but reflect on.

The proper place for a jaded existential outsider is indeed beyond the tent in the forest, apart from the glare of the city lights, adrift at sea with the island of traitors only barely visible in the distance. The voluntary loser should be shunned by the masses that applaud the world, ignoring as they do the axiom that nature is fundamentally hideous. The tragic hero has no wholesome business with the herd, not even as shepherd, since the shepherd is doomed to become the callous avatar of monstrous evolution, the zealous player-of-civilized-games that ravages foreign herds. Thus, that hero has worm-ridden dirt for treasure and cricket song for applause; instead of being adorned with a sparkling medal, the outsider is crowned with a void of twinkling alien stars.


  1. “Cheer up, Brian. Look at it this way: You come from nothing; you go back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!”

    1. Well, you've lost what "nothing" created, which is yourself, which is everything you're driven by evolution to care about. To stop caring about yourself, you have to give up on all desires like a Buddhist, in which case the Buddhist or ascetic has no reason to be altruistic or compassionate (because those are just more desires to which the Buddhist shouldn't be attached one way or the other).

      Who's Brian? Is that a quote from the end of The Life of Brian? It is Stoic wisdom, but it's interesting that Stoicism appealed largely to soldiers who needed to make themselves feel better about the horrors of war. In other words, this way of coping with death stems from something like propaganda.

      Also, technically, we don't come from absolute nothingness. Our cells come from our parents, and life generally comes from nonliving nature (from the planet which comes from the sun and so on). So life is precious because living-dead, godless but absurdly animate natural processes are horrific. To go back to those processes is tragic, which is why we should be focused on creatively transcending nature instead of behaving in cliched animal fashion.

      Still, there is something to the point that in a sense we come out equal in death, since we're not losing any pre-existing, immortal soul. The fact that death is the great equalizer is key to the absurdity of life, though, since it implies that nothing we do in life matters or makes a real difference. Why not, then, rape, steal or kill to get ahead? Assuming they're strong enough not to get caught, this is how predators like the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia think.

  2. Factually, you are correct, but facts do not entirely determine how we feel; and the effort to be an active agent in our own lives - to “cheer up” - IS “caring about yourself”, no? But I understand there might be worthy projects other than enjoying life as we await the day the Great Raptor comes and tears out our livers, or whatever demise the future has in store for us. “Transcending Nature” sounds like an oxymoron to me, but if we can create something new, then I guess we are participating in the on-going creation of the future. May you find such projects rewarding. I love your work, not in spite of its gloominess, but because I enjoy the challenge it presents: Can I continue to remain positive about life in the face of the horrible truth? Why not? Like I said, I aim to be the primary agency in my own life rather than a passive subject. Being as happy as I can be at any given time is my will.
    Ethics is grounded in the fact that we are all separate instantiations of the same consciousness - when we think we cannot feel anothers’ pain, it is because we fail to understand that we actually ARE feeling it: there is only one conscious entity in existence - that other person is a different version of me experience the universe in a different body - and so attempting to follow the Golden Rule is the right thing to do. We don’t need God or or any other authority to tell us not to mistreat others; it is objectively the right thing to do. (Yeah, I realize few believe this about consciousness and identity, but since no one knows what consciousness is, I say the burden of proof is not decided, and I’ll stand my ground.)

    1. Thanks for reading, Noel. I'm glad you find my writing challenging, but my blog isn't all dark...

      I agree that the facts needn't determine our attitude towards them. As I explain in "Enlightenment and Suicide" (link below), there are the negative facts of cosmicism (the philosophical, naturalistic upshot of science) and then there's the light side of existentialism (ethical responsibility, intellectual integrity, personal authenticity) and what I call the aesthetic perspective (creatively transcending the facts somewhat as Nietzsche suggested).

      I distinguish between the metaphysical aspect of nature (nature vs supernature) and nature's historical, evolutionary aspect (artificiality emerging from what's natural or biological in this second sense). We transcend nature not metaphysically (because the whole universe is natural), but by introducing the world to novel properties and behaviours, by reversing the living-dead spinning of mindless cycles, injecting value, purpose, and intelligent design with the artificial extensions of our minds (with our languages, cultures, artworks, cities, etc). Artificiality is the miracle hiding in plain sight (links below, if you're interested).

      The Hindu story is certainly a wild one, but it's more respectable than Western religions, in my view. I don't think we need to appeal to that story to explain the altruistic impulse, but the story does little harm (except for the part about karma which keeps down lower castes and justifies dominance hierarchies).

      For me, ethics is grounded in the biological responses of disgust and pity. These come into conflict when we're disgusted by the weakness of the sufferers we pity and should be helping (links below). This conflict drives the enlightened, sensitive, most compassionate introverts to withdraw from society, leaving the unenlightened mass of followers (the "betas") to be dominated by the predators and psychopaths (the "alphas" who are naturally corrupted by the power that comes with their material success). In short, ethics ends up being for losers (omegas), because nice guys finish last.

  3. It’s the introduction to the brilliant song, ”Always Look at the Bright Side of Life”, by Eric Idle, which seems like the antithesis of your essays. The horrific facts of life are real, but are they everything? If life is precious, isn’t it possible that it’s worth all the horror? And zombies don’t create beauty, but nature does, doesn’t it? Why not identify yourself with that aspect of it - with joy, creativity, and love - and look at the negatives as the price we have to pay for the “precious” stuff? Hell, maybe we could even learn to love a zombie!

    1. There is a positive side to my philosophy, which I go into in some of my writings (some links below).

      I do say life is worth the horror, which is why I argued at length against antinatalism (see the mental health section of the Map of the Articles, and see the article below, "Enlightenment and Suicide").

      Nature does create beauty, which is why I often say nature is horrific but also awesome and sublime. Nature is inhuman, amoral, and thus not evil or good. The cosmicist horror is that our conventional values are therefore only more or less self-serving, not grounded in natural reality. That's why in my aesthetic reworking of morality, I try to ground esoteric moral values in objectivity, the aesthetic attitude, or the posthuman gaze (see the article below, "Life as Art"). So I say the good life is indeed a creative one, since aesthetic values are the only ones that survive late-modern philosophical scrutiny.

      In a sense, zombies do create beauty, though, since natural forces and processes are only living-dead, not intelligently directed. We, too, lacking any spiritual substance, are in some sense zombies, and so our creations are tainted by their natural underpinnings. The honour and the glory are in our capacity to perform the virtual miracle of engaging in truly anti-natural and thus creative (original and anomalous) endeavours.

      Joy and love are less interesting to me. I see it as our duty to feel bad on behalf of the trillions of creatures that natural indifference and randomness have badly screwed over. So joy would be a product of absent-mindedness, at best. Love can be alright, as I begin to explore in "Sex and the Authentic Self" (link below, if you're interested).

  4. Thanks for the engaging response; I thought I had “gotchas” in there, but you dodged effectively. I have some more though. Another time.
    While I also think it is our duty to be concerned about the suffering of others, and I can’t help it anyway, I also desire that they experience joy and love, and I see no reason to deprive myself, as long as I’m causing no harm to others. What’s funny about the song is that it advises “always” looking at the bright side, while contradicting itself by acknowledging how dreadful life can be. Reminds me of a psychology professor who told me, “You think too much for your own good.” I guess he would say the same thing about you.

    1. The Monty Python song is likely somewhat sarcastic.

      From one of the first articles I wrote for this blog, I've said that reason is "cursed," meaning that philosophers do think too much to be happy. That's been a lesson in the Western tradition since the Garden of Eden myth. Happiness requires ignorance. By contrast, the Eastern view is that there's a mystical, stoical stance of acceptance, resulting in bliss but at the cost of undoing our personal ego.

      And the science-centered, naturalistic view may be that our species as a whole thinks too much for its good or for the good of all life in the Anthropocene. Thinking, the planning to achieve goals based on necessarily counterfactual ideals or values is unnatural in the sense of being ant-natural. We think or model reality to perfect nature. Thus, as thinking creatures we set ourselves at odds with the world and so we experience the world as an obstacle to be overcome. Happiness (contentment) isn't really in the cards, under those circumstances, because we're tilting at windmills or climbing the hill like Sisyphus.

      The way to be happy or to have a "good" life is to be subhuman in the existential (not biological) sense. That is, what's best for us in conventional terms is to be unaware of the big picture I just sketched, and to be focused on achieving realistic, relatively minor goals. Simple pleasures for small minds. The bigger the mind, as it were, the more the horror on account of a greater awareness of the existential stakes.